Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 4: Left Behind

The next few days were a whirlwind. Jaselle, as promised, worked with the keep’s steward, Brinold, to see the new wagons provisioned. When time allowed, she also shadowed her father, trying to understand the responsibilities Northspire was about to send her way.

Laranna, on the other hand, buried herself in figures, calculating the supplies needed to support the keep and a thousand new recruits throughout the winter. The Earl had sent out messengers, but the responses so far weren’t encouraging. The Holders were not pleased, to say the least. Bad enough they would have to deliver their sons, but they would have to be fed, clothed, and equipped. He’d demanded the Holder pay for that, too.

The armory wasn’t stocked for an army, either. Hundreds of spearheads would have to be forged, and fitted to shafts. Hundreds of hides would have to be tanned. Ideally, the upper officers would be fitted for chain armor, as Athena had been. In reality, some would have to do with hardened leather, including the sons of Holders who had not commissioned their own equipment. Most of the recruits would wear no armor at all, a fact the conscription crews certainly wouldn’t be mentioning. There would be complaints of lies and coercion, and there would be resistance. But many young men would be eager at the chance to prove themselves, and enter into Travan’s lauded warrior tradition. Anyone who fought for Travan, and fought well enough, might never have to farm again. Travan’s chosen defenders were treated very well.

They should be, in Laranna’s mind. Travan hadn’t been to war in decades, but the borders were always active. Raids from the smaller Kharshe clans and Viken from the north were endemic, and Northspire’s finest were often called in for relief or retaliation. Travanians were a proud and contentious people, too, known to strike out at tax collectors and absentee landlords. Even in peacetime, the Earl’s finest too often paid the ultimate price. Now there would be war, and her father was riding off to join it, as soon as he finished his eggs.

“Everything is ready, then?” Laranna asked.

“The wagons are packed, the horses are saddled, and the Direwolves are gathering out front. Things had better be ready,” Jaselle replied waspishly, reddened eyes crinkling. Provisioning the lot on short notice hadn’t been easy, and Gemmelon hadn’t any time to spare for gratitude.

“Thank you, girls,” Joranthan replied, eyes clouded. “I’ve asked a lot of you, on short notice. Your mother would be proud. She - anyway, you’ve done well. Northspire will be in good hands during my absence.”

Laranna felt her heart leap within her, and she ached with the need for reassurance. Her mother was dead. She couldn’t shake the fear her father would be next, or her irrational sense of guilt. It wasn’t her fault, not the war, not her mother, not owing her life to Jacob and Athena. It wasn’t her father’s either, though he took responsibility for everything, and held his pain close. Never let them see you bleed, she thought. The eggs tasted like ash.

“You’ll come back soon?” Jaselle prodded.

“Yes, of course,” the Earl replied heavily. “As soon as I can, so I won’t have you following after. With luck, the Empress won’t have any need of us. If luck fails, I trust her Majesty not to spend her people uselessly. The Travansils are not Khardum; they’ll be looking to conquer Travan, not destroy it. Oh, and Laranna, do eat something. It would be a shame to waste such a fine breakfast, after all the work the kitchen staff have done for us, and Athena isn’t here to help with the leftovers.”

No, Athena wasn’t. She and Gelan were setting up a barracks outside the city, and the field they chose for it needed only minimal clearing. Stakes and tents were already rising; Laranna could see them from the tower. Hopefully, the first recruits be arriving within days, in response to her father’s messages. Stocking the camp in time would be a near thing, but sacks of flour were being packed, and hammers rang long hours in the forge.

Laranna lifted a fork to her mouth, and swallowed. Sawdust and ash. “Breakfast is wonderful. The cook has outdone herself.”

Jaselle quietly lifted her own fork, and stirred the bacon on her plate. “How is the recruitment going? Northspire hasn’t seen a real army since we drove out the Kulls.”

“Slow,” Laranna replied. “Most of the Holders haven’t responded. The others are dragging their feet, asking for more time. There are still fall crops coming in, and farmers are stocking up, cutting wood, and getting in pre-snow repairs.

“They probably think we’ll be holed up until Spring. No one really wants to spend their winter in tents, learning the spear in two feet of snow. I expect we’ll get our first recruits from the East: Holder Jorm and a few others caught some midsummer hail, and have been too proud to admit what it cost them. They may be grateful to have fewer mouths to feed, if we can pitch in with some grain. That said, none of the Holders are happy with us. We’ll have to rattle some doors to pick up even a thousand soldiers. I wish you would be here for that, Father.”

Lord Jorathan placed his hand on his daughter’s. “I know. It’s a lot to ask of you, but you’ll do fine. If there’s a man in Northspire who could govern it better than you, either of you, I don’t know him. I wish you’d had more time to earn their trust. I just - well, it doesn’t matter. They’re good men, and they’ll learn to respect you the way I do.”

Laranna smiled faintly. She was never supposed to keep the Holders in line. She was supposed to be married by now, and have a husband to do the job for her. The only man she was supposed to order around was that lucky fellow, by the going rules. Him and the staff of whatever keep she was whisked away to, of course.

Well, that never happened, but her father was to polite to point it out. That might change when the Earl returned, if he returned. God above, she hated to add that qualifier. It was a morbid thought, but if he fell, the Holders would pressure her all the more: she might even have to marry one, if she didn’t want a rebellion on her hands. It wouldn’t be much easier for Jaselle.

It didn’t matter - they didn’t have to discuss it. Father and daughter both knew. “They’re not you, father. Really, there’s no one like you anywhere. Come home.”

“I will,” Joranthan promised, and paused to hug both his daughters in turn.

“You’d better,” Jaselle sniffed, stifling what sounded suspiciously like tears, as she finally released the Earl. “Joran’s going to miss you. You can’t leave him only to me and Jeyne.”

Lord Northspire took the chastisement in stride. “I’ll do everything I can, and I‘ll be sure be to check up on them before I go. In fact, I suppose I better do that now. I love you both.”

Then he was gone, leaving Laranna to her sawdust and ashes.

The keep’s meeting room felt smaller than usual, more cramped, as Jaselle waited for the room to quiet. Brightly colored tapestries and the rainbow of the Holders’ livery offered no comfort at all in air thick with sweat and blame. The Holders were stalwart friends, ruthless opponents, and reluctant to trust anyone who hadn’t proven themselves capable allies. Like Jaselle, who as the Earl’s younger daughter, had never met most of them. What else could be expected from men whose fathers and grandfathers had wrested their lands from the barbarians, men still in a continual struggle against the Kulls, the elements, and each other?

She forced herself to breathe, but not too deep - she wasn’t ready for the attention. She carefully smoothed her mint green dress, the one that set off the gold in her eyes and sandy hair. Stepping away from the door, she wrenched her gaze to her guests.

Holder Coram was tall, a dark-haired man in a bright blue tunic, who examined her with intense brown eyes. He was broad-shouldered and wiry: handsome, despite his crooked teeth. He was also looking her up and down like a prize mare, barely trying to hide it. She felt exposed. The two other Holders were in conversation with one another by the door: Jakol, a wheat farmer, and Jana, an older woman whose husband had owned a large iron mine to the east before dying heroically inside, saving the lives of several men. She’d run the Hold and the mine for years, neglecting to pass it on to her sons. She was tough as nails, and rumor was the Hold had never been run better.

Steward Brinold was already seated. He tapped his feet, waiting for Jaselle to start the meeting. His wizened face was difficult to read, but he didn’t look happy. He had been distant in the few days since the Earl departed, though his older son Janil had been tireless in the management of the keep, enough so to make Jaselle feel redundant. Despite that, it was her responsibility to make sure the keep was stocked for the winter. Though her sister had run the initial numbers, and she listened to Janil, she double-checked everything herself.

Janil would take his father’s role when the steward retired, but until then, he was only an assistant. As such, he wasn’t present for today’s meeting. Brinold was, but he only watched and waited, saying nothing at all so far, though she’d called the meeting at his advice. He’d been adamant that dividing the Holders and conquering them was necessary, and pulling these few apart was the best way to do that. Laranna would have to agree.

Jaselle, standing by the head of the table, cleared her throat, but the Holders by the door didn’t even glance her way. Coram’s eyes were still roaming her, assessing her with idle interest. She looked to Brinold for help, but he was studying his fingernails. She wished Laranna were here, or that she had her sister’s confidence. After a moment’s hesitation, the Earl’s daughter raised her voice, “Thank you for coming to meet with me. We have much to discuss. Please sit.”

The Holders by the door looked over, and Coram’s lecherous grin soured. “What is this, girl? Are we not waiting for the Earl to arrive?”

“No,” Jaselle replied carefully, “my father has ridden to answer the Empress’s call. Each of you were invited here because you raised objections to the recent war levies, and because you provide goods that will be critical to Northspire’s army surviving the winter. We need much to gather more than we originally planned, and I’d like to discuss arrangements.”

“Take, you mean, not gather,” Coram replied, “from what my sweat has won. First you ask for my sons, then you demand my coin. Now you require my produce too? I thought Joranthan would at least have the stones to tell me himself. Well, you can’t have them all. Unless you can tell me what in Hell my sons should risk their lives for, I’m of half a mind to leave you with nothing until the Empress’s next assessment. That’s all the Charter promised, except in times of war, and I take it no barbarians are riding this way?”

The other two were nodding, though they must know that the Empress would punish such refusal severely. Travan had every right to levy wartime taxes and recruits, and Empress Celene had declared war. Was this just his way of negotiating? Brinold’s cheek twitched in what might have been mirth, and he began to use his knife to trim the nails he was so fascinated with.

Jaselle checked an exasperated sigh. “Holder - Coram, is it? Coram, the Capital is under attack by the rebellious House of Travansil! The Empress has demanded we bring every available fighting man. By honor and Charter, we cannot delay. But I won’t ask the impossible. If your burden is too heavy, perhaps some accommodation can be made?”

At this, Holder Jana’s eyes widened, but Jakol only looked thoughtful. Brinold set down his knife, and began to bite his lip.

Coram scoffed loudly before continuing. “Accommodation! Girl, Joranthan shows us no respect. We will answer the call of the Empress, despite her unconcern for us. We will even sell you grain, but Joranthan’s offer is a joke. At twice the price, we’ll practically be beggared. Two talents are all we can afford for your tax, even at that price.”

Jaselle nodded slowly. Her sister had calculated the impact of the levy, and the tax. She’d sworn she’d read the figures herself, but suddenly they escaped her. Was Coram’s reaction reasonable? She wasn’t sure, and Brinold refused to meet her eyes. Laranna would know what to do. “I know that the combined weight of these taxes is heavy, but that is a result of these trying times. I will consult with my sister - “

“Your sister?” the tall Holder interrupted. “You called us in to laugh at our objections, and you don’t even have the authority to deal with us! I made my offer. Show some gratitude, or take nothing at all.”

Jaselle subconsciously placed a hand to her forehead, loosening one of the locks from the silver band that held it there. “Holder, I expect this will be acceptable, but I must talk - “

“Northspire understands you plight,” Brinold interjected, placing a soothing hand on the irate Holder’s shoulder. “Three talents is but a third of the proposed assessment. Pay that, and the rest of your terms are acceptable.”

Coram shook his head sadly for a moment, but then sighed. “I will only be able to supply fifty men, then.”

“You drive a hard bargain,” Brinold chuckled, and Coram clapped him on the back where he sat.

“Oh?” Jana replied. “Will you bend to Coram’s whining, and leave me nothing? Every blade in Northspire comes from my steel. Take my men, and who will refine it? Which do you want? The men or the steel? At three times your offer.”

“Jana”, Jaselle began reasonably -

“Bah,” Jana interrupted. “Are you going to half everyone’s taxes? Show some backbone, girl. I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t be treated unfairly just because Holder Coram has a handsome jaw. I saw you looking, so don’t try to deny it.”

“I admit no such thing!” Jaselle shrieked, uncharacteristically. “Please, stop talking over me! I’ll make fair adjustment according to my father’s instructions. I just need to double-check - “

“Holder Jana, you know how these negotiations go,” Brinold interrupted smoothly. “Your steel is the best in the East. We never expected you to send miners and smiths to us. What a waste! Just pick two dozen men among your farmers, and send them our way. You don’t want the mouths this winter, anyway. We’ll halve your assessment and pay you half again market price for the steel. We’ll need extra steel, though. I expect most of the north and east will prefer sending men to coin, so we’ll cover our manpower gaps there.

“Before you interrupt, Jakol, we don’t need your coin, but send all the wheat you can spare. I promise a fair price.”

“I’ll send my wheat, at twice market,” Jakol chuckled, “And you can have your worthless drunks. Just you make sure I get to pick all of them, not your recruiters.”

“Done,” Brinold laughed. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, sit, and I’ll have drinks brought.”

Jaselle pursed her lips. Laranna was going to be pissed. Not only was Brinold cutting the taxes substantially, Laranna was handling the recruiting policy, and he’d just run roughshod over it. Unfortunately, Jaselle herself had failed miserably. She couldn’t even fix it: confronting Brinold in front of the Holders would be a disaster. Conversation was picking up, and the Holders finally sat, relaxed in their seats, but no one was looking her way any longer. Her back still itched, too, from where Brinold had planted his knife. At least Coram wasn’t staring at her anymore. She should never have let Brinold call this meeting.

Laranna raised a hand to her brow, and surveyed the parade ground. The previously empty lot was bustling with the preparations to host an army. The Earl owned the land, but cattle had been allowed to graze here, so Athena and Galen’s men hadn’t needed much time to clear the lot. There was a short wooden fence around the grounds, made with planks hewn from nearby pines, and a small office building at one of its corners. Just outside, Galen was standing with a red-haired engineer and a couple guards, who were digging the foundation for a new barracks. There would soon be dozens of them in straight lines, most built by the soldiers who would inhabit them. To her right, a smith and his apprentices were raising their own shack, and a forge would follow soon. Laranna spared them only a glance. She wasn’t here for them.

“Hello, Athena,” she called out, as the armored woman approached. “You look well.”

“Thank you,” the blond replied. “You too. I’ll bet even your bruises have faded by now. I’m sorry to leave you unwatched, and even sorrier to leave you without a sparring partner, but I admit having a few evenings to myself is refreshing.”

“Oh,” Laranna replied, sympathetic pain creasing her face. “I suppose I did keep you pretty close. I’d never had a bodyguard, so I wasn’t sure what was appropriate. I didn’t mean to take advantage of you, and I shouldn’t have.”

Athena shook her head lightly. “Don’t think I’m ungrateful. You took me in when I had nowhere else to go, and a bodyguard is a servant, my Lady. It’s just not a job I’m used to, even now.”

Laranna brushed a dark strand of hair out of her eyes, considering. “Well, you’re on to better things now, so you won’t have to be. How many of the Holders have arrived?”

“A half dozen, my Lady. They’re waiting in the war room. Most of them showed up this morning, so I doubt we’ll have any more today.”

“I had best see to them, then,” Laranna sighed “Would you be so kind as to grab Galen?”

“Of course, my Lady,” Athena murmured, and sauntered off toward the rising barracks.

Laranna remained where she was, for the moment. It would be unwise to show herself to the Holders before she was ready to speak, though there was no harm in taking a peek at the building where they waited. It was still a rough construction, a roomy cabin that would probably earn a table or a desk in the near future. At the moment, it didn’t even boast a door, just an open frame. The rising smoke proved it had a working hearth, though. Most such buildings would rate a small bedroom where a clerk could live. As a Marshal, Athena would be able to demand her own room. Some of the others might be jealous, but really, should a woman be expected to live, wash, and change in the midst of two dozen men?

Gelan finally peeled off from his construction, and approached as a proper gentleman ought to, with Athena at his left. Laranna wasn’t close to him, but what she knew impressed her. He was a skilled swordsman, and a thoughtful speaker. Despite the olive skin that came from being raised in a half-Kull family, he was an educated man. He spoke gently, but commanded a dry wit. She might have expected someone with Kull ancestry to be practiced in using his fists, as it was never easy to be different. Yet Laranna had never heard a serious word against him. He was easy on the eyes, too: he’d make a fine husband for some yeoman’s daughter. He greeted the Earl’s daughter with a deep bow.

“Well met, Gelan,” Laranna acknowledged. “I know there’s much left to do, but you’ve both accomplished marvels already. Anything I should know before we enter the lion’s den?”

Gelan cocked his head, thinking. “Not much, My Lady. The recruiters can’t begin in earnest until the Holders give the word, and most are demanding to select their own levies. We could probably ask for something in return for that, but the truth is they’ll get better results if we let them choose. We don’t have the manpower to round up hundreds of unwilling men from dozens of villages. I don’t suspect we should point that out to them, though. We may have to explain that despite Athena’s presence, we’re not expecting women to fight.

We shouldn’t turn any away, though, especially from the camp. I expect we’ll get a lot of potential cooks, seamstresses, and um - well, yes. We’ll end up with a crowd of followers behind the proper army, if we intend to march. Likely even if we don’t.”

Laranna fought not to roll her eyes. “I won’t be setting up a camp for them, but I see your point. Athena?”

The warrior shifted to her left foot. “I’ve never been in an army, so it’s difficult to say. I think I agree with Gelan. That reminds me - should I keep an eye out for potential bodyguards? Your father is right that you don’t need them in your family’s keep, but you may want them if you intend to wander a war camp.”

Laranna hesitated, as part of her had expected Athena to return to the role eventually, and the rest of her wasn’t sure if being followed by strange men would be an improvement. “You can look. I’ll want to meet anyone you choose, though. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that…“

While Laranna trailed off helplessly, Athena’s eyes crinkled in a reassuring smile. “Of course. After all you’ve been through, I don’t expect you to be too trusting. Don’t worry, these guards would be for escorting you from place to place, not for combing your hair or sleeping outside your room.”

Or for sleeping on a cot inside, as Athena often had. Laranna hadn’t realized how lonely she was until she had found a friend she trusted, and Athena had saved her life. But that was months ago, when they were both guests of Talyk. Now she couldn’t help but wonder how much of Athena’s friendship had simply been due to a desperate lack of options. She would find out soon: Athena didn’t need her anymore. “Thank you. What time-frame should we expect on recruitment, Gelan? Father seemed to think two or three weeks would do, but I’d like another opinion. Holders excel at dragging their feet when they’re not kept in line.”

Gelan’s lips pursed in amusement, and his dark hair wriggled as he nodded. It was rather fetching, actually. “Two weeks is probably optimistic: the taxes are often late by that much. We should demand two weeks for the recruits to arrive, but expect three. We’ll be lucky to have a force worth mentioning by year’s end, including the bare minimum of training. I hope the Empress doesn’t need us soon, my Lady.”

“So the leaves will have turned almost entirely before we even reach our numbers,” Laranna mused. “Unfortunately, if we hesitate, we will be stuck here until Spring. Are you ready for this?”

“I was born ready, my Lady” Athena answered with a grin, which Galen matched.

“Then we had best get started,” Laranna replied, heading for the freshly constructed wooden building.

Athena entered first, by habit, and Gelan fell behind. The inside of the room smelled fresh, though its frame would be made of well-seasoned pine. The Holders were standing or sitting on rough-hewn benches, hardly worthy of Northspire’s usual. Good, let them know that this was serious business, all ten of them with their judging eyes.

Laranna had met most of them, one time or another, though her father had usually done the talking. Holder Dovam was tall, thin, and owned the largest farms in the north. Holders Vani and Talik owned land bordering Kull territory in the same direction, and bore the costs of the occasional raid. They would be more capable of defending Travan, but maybe less sympathetic. The same was true of Holders Thado and Doran in the west, though Laranna had worked with them in the past during peace talks with Kullen, and she believed she could count on them. Most of the wealth was in the older Holds to the South, and they would be more concerned with the increased taxes than the manpower requirements: hopefully Jaselle was handling Coram and Jakol on the issues, despite Laranna’s reservations about splitting them out. Holders Jorm and Samit, on the other hand, had suffered withering summer hailstorms, and might be happy to rid themselves of mouths to feed, though they would never admit it. All of them could be counted on to be stubborn and critical, and resistant to the bad news. Should she focus on the more influential northern Holders first, or hope they would jump in when they saw where the wind was blowing?

“Greetings, my lords,” Laranna began. Best to be formal: minor gentry seldom received honorifics outside their own Holds, but they loved hearing them. “Thank you for coming. You each have my father’s instructions, but no doubt you have questions better resolved in person, and so I’d like to lay them to rest.

“First though, I’d like to sum up the situation. Holders, a rebellion is rising in the South of Travan, and we have to consider it a serious threat. It’s taken Tora and Isen, both large cities. The Empress demands that all her vassals come to her aid as soon as possible. My father has already departed, taking everyone we could spare form the Direwolves. He also appointed me Regent in his stead, and, asked me to gather levies to reinforce him, which I will do.

“Gelan and Athena will be acting as our army’s Marshals, under my command, with Gelan at the lead. Both are experienced warriors; if we need march south to join my father, I have every faith in their capabilities. Northspire will train a thousand men from its twelve Holds and the town itself, each contributing according to its population. I know you will all do your duty to defend Travan in its time of need.

“The Earl and I ask each of you to send seventy-five men within two weeks’ time. With God’s help, we will weather this trial with grace. Are there any questions?”

Holder Vani rose from the creaking bench by the wall, and stepped forward. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was built like a bull, with a temper to match. Thankfully, that temper had not been stoked, yet. His deep brown eyes glowed dangerously, however, and Laranna did not confuse his calm with contentment. As someone who faced Kull raids on a semi-regular basis, he would be less than inclined to give up men who could fight. He also nursed a resentment, not completely unjustified, that Northspire wasn’t defending him. Half the other Holders looked to him, however, making it vital to win him over.

“With respect, girl,” Vani rumbled, “Joranthan should have stayed the extra three days to speak to us himself. Then maybe he could explain why in Hell we should march to a civil war that will be over before we arrive. If the Empress can’t hold Travan with tens of thousands of men, descendants of those who turned back Khardum’s army, our thousand will accomplish nothing. Northspire winters are long and hard. You don’t really intend to march in the midst of one, when even the southerners will halt their campaigns until Spring?”

Laranna looked from side to side with feigned casualness. Her palms were hot, and her heart beat wildly in her chest, but her face was the bemused mask that had saved her life a dozen times in Sarronen. “Is there a girl in the room somewhere? Athena is a warrior who could toss you like the insides of yesterday’s chamber pot. You certainly were not referring to a Lady acting in regency for the Earl, were you? Please, feel free to enlighten me.”

Vani examined Athena appreciatively, maybe weighing who could toss who. Athena met his appraisal with smoldering eyes, lips curled in a crooked smile. Whatever the Holder decided, he turned to Laranna before snorting in amusement. “My Lady.”

The one-time heir to Northspire nodded slightly. “I wish my father could have remained to answer your questions, but he judged that Northspire’s finest warriors might prove critical if they mobilized immediately. More importantly, the Earl can assess the situation with a small group, before committing the lives of the rest of his army. I will be in contact with him by pigeon.”

Holder Thado crossed his bulky arms, offering his own response. “We are still a young Hold, and taxes are a heavy burden for those who suffer monthly Kull raids. Do you really ask that we accept heavy new burdens, and send seventy young men to your aid on the mere chance they may be needed? We know your efforts on our behalf in the past, my Lady. Have mercy on us.”

Damn. Of course they would use Laranna’s own actions against her. “If we do not act now, we may not be able to act later, Holder Thado. My hands are tied on this matter.”

Holder Vani returned his deep voice to the fray. “My Lady, that is precisely my concern. We follow the speculation of a man many leagues distant. Can you not delay the collection of men and taxes until the Earl sends his message? Clearly he doesn’t want to waste our resources. Only a little more time, and the entire expense might be avoided entirely. Would you send our people rudderless into the future because you lack the courage to choose the reasonable course, or do you lack the authority? Let us wait a little longer, my Lady.”

Cries echoed loudly within the small room. “Hear, hear!”

Laranna unconsciously placed a hand to her forehead. The Holders knew too well that no army would be marching to Northspire this winter. They would seize on any opportunity to delay or avoid the burden being thrust at them. In their shoes, Laranna would feel the same, but like her father, she had a duty. “I swore an oath to serve the Empress and the Empire upon adulthood, as did you. An oath you also gave to my father. The unity of Travan held it firm against the sons of Kharshe who brought Miraka low, and against all enemies foreign and internal. Will you forsake that in order to delay the necessary by a week? A week which might tip the balance against the Empress?”

Holder Jarak, a white-haired old man with a bent back, raised his own voice into the fray. “Never has Travan failed to hold order against upstart houses, and our thousand is a drop in the bucket against the great cities of the South. Joranthan is wise to appease the Empress. He can tell her honestly that he has raised the North at her back. But we must assert our own needs. A delay of a few weeks costs the Empress nothing, but acting rashly my cost us dearly. Westerhold asks to hold the levies until Travan’s need is proved.”

“Hear, hear!” the voices cried, and Laranna’s heart sagged. Jarak was not among the bravest of Holders, despite his wealth; if he felt comfortable resisting her, they all would. She needed to win one holder, an influential one, to bring the rest. Vani might work, or Tarik, but they weren’t leaders because they were easy to sway.

“Honor demands we respond to Travan’s call, and the Earl’s lawful order,” Laranna called out. “If we do not begin recruiting now, the winter may be lost for training, and the Earl may not be able to appraise the situation for weeks. My Marshals and I agree: we must prepare now.”

Gelan and Athena nodded their support, but remained silent. She would continue to face the Holders’ siege alone. Jorm, of Torvansilhold, was next to speak. “Perhaps some compromise can be reached. We could provide a quarter of the levy now, perhaps fifteen men. They can train without armor or wages for three weeks, while we wait for news. That way, we will be ready against Kull incursion, at least. The Earl has left us defenseless without his men.”

There was buzzing within the room, as the holders considered, and the Earl’s daughter studied her Marshals’ uneasy expressions. Though a token force might seem like a step in the right direction, it would most likely be the last one the Holders would take. This was not going well.

Holder Tarik, a middle aged man with powerful arms and a powerful voice, added new concerns. “BlackHold also demands that sufficient force be raised to defend Northspire, in agreement with Holder Jorm. But these Marshals are untested. No doubt they are well trained, but there is no replacement for seasoning in battle. My son Demansil has ridden against the Kulls in over a dozen counter-raids. Place him at your side, and I will commit to twenty men and a third of the tariff today, my Lady. Otherwise, I vote we convene a formal Holders’s Council to recommend against the demands of the Earl, for the good of Northspire.”

Laranna’s eyes blazed, though Gelan placed a hand on her arm to still her. She ignored it. “You would extort Northspire for your own son’s glory! Have you no shame? But I see some compromise must be made. I ask for thirty men delivered in two weeks’ time, and a third of the tariff. We will revisit future actions then, with what information we have. But I will expect the other forty-five to follow, barring positive news.”

“Twenty men would be more than sufficient, and a quarter of the tariff,” Holder Jorm countered.

“Bah!” Talik replied, dismissing Jorm. “I will send nothing, if you do not have a leader among you worth following.”

“Send your son,” Gelan spoke suddenly, “and I will listen to him, and promise him a captaincy. Anything more than that he must earn on his own. I spent two years training in Travan’s War College, and led a campaign against Kharshe riders there. I have been Gemmelon’s assistant for four years besides. Your doubt of my skill is born of ignorance, Holder Tarik.”

“Ha!” Tarik replied, chuckling. “Twenty men, then, but provisions only to go along with them. The Earldom needs no gold from us unless the army marches.”

“Hear, hear!” the cries began, and there was a shift in the feet of the crowd, with several moving to stand nearer Tarik.

Laranna sighed quietly, the exhale buried beneath the cheers. It was going to be a long day.

Laranna slumped into the chair, and reached for her wine. Athena and Gelan were already seated, and nursing their ales. Jaselle would be here soon. The dining room had already been cold and dark a week ago, on the long day when her father announced that Northspire would be marching to war. It was colder now, and the day had felt longer. Little matter that the sky was clear and mild, and the blanket of stars was rolling toward the horizon earlier each day than the last: there had been more than enough hours to leave her exhausted.

“It’s alright, Laranna,” Athena offered in comfort. “At least we can start. I wouldn’t know what to do if a thousand men showed up at my door tomorrow. Now we have some time to put unit together. And in a few weeks, more men for dinner than I’ve ever seen outside of a parade.”

Laranna lifted her right hand, rubbing her fingers against her temple. “Maybe. Maybe Father has time too. I don’t know.”

“The meeting didn’t go well?” Jaselle asked from the doorway. Her green dress was lovely, but her haggard expression didn’t wear as well. Something had hit her hard.

“They ate me alive,” Laranna exhaled, as Jaselle drew near. “Dad’s orders too. They’re not going to pay the tariffs we need for weapons, armor, or a supply train. They’ll send two hundred men, but only because someone reminded them that no one is protecting Northspire unless Dad gets back. I mean, when he gets back. I’m afraid to hope your day went better.”

Jaselle shook her head slowly. “If I’m lucky, the others have forgotten I was even there by now. Brinold talked right over me, too, and bargained down the levies with three of the Holders.”

Laranna’s brow furrowed. “He has no authority to do that. You and I speak for Father.”

Jaselle crossed her arms. “No one told him that, apparently.”

Laranna’s fingers returned to her temples. “As if I didn’t have enough messes to clean up. I’ll add Brinold and the other three to the list - I should have known better than to let you handle them separately. Their holds can’t be treated differently from the others, or there will be hell to pay. At least now I know why Brinold declined to attend tonight.”

“Right,” Jaselle snapped. “Because only you can fix anything.”

Her older sister raised an eyebrow dangerously. “Yes, these are my problems to sort out. Whatever my failings today, the Holders at least take me seriously.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” Athena said incredulously. “Things didn’t go well for any of us, and there’s too much to be done for you to do it yourself. Jaselle can handle Brinold and the others herself. She’s going to need the authority, if you plan on leaving Northspire with an army.”

“If I wanted your opinion, I would have asked,” Laranna replied with acid precision, every word sharply pronounced. A small part of winced to hear the world leave her lips. Most of her didn’t care.

“Yes, but you haven’t the sense God gave a teacup,” Athena retorted. “Once the Holders admitted they needed a defense force, all you had to do was play their fears. And honestly, the Holders are probably right that you shouldn’t march south unless you have to, so it wouldn’t hurt to admit it. Maybe you should listen to some advice that isn’t your own, for once.”

Gelan recoiled, aghast, but Jaselle slammed her palms into the table. “Enough!” she roared. “Laranna, you are better than this. I’m sure you’ve handled a tough situation almost as well as it could be handled. Let me pick up my own pieces! The world isn’t yours to fix. We’re on your side, and you need us as much as we need you.

“Athena, this isn’t the way! My sister could stare down a mule, but she does listen. She’s just tired, and scared to death of everything on her shoulders. Let it be.”

“I’m sorry,” Athena murmured, sounding sincere, probably. “I was only trying to help. My Lady. I think we all need a drink, and some thick stew.”

“Amen to that,” Gelan replied.

Jaselle nodded, her shoulders sagging in relief.

Laranna stood, gaze fixed in the distance. One more mess to clean up, though the worst had been averted. “Yes, of course. Enjoy yourselves. I’m not hungry, but I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

Northspire’s regent walked purposefully toward the door. She refused to hurry, or to look back. If the others saw the how watery her eyes had become, her authority would be undone completely.

Laranna lay quietly in her bed, listening to the breeze whistle softly through the shutters. The stress of holding herself together throughout the day leaked silently from her eyes. There were no sobs, no wracking pains of sorrow, just the cold and the wind, inside and out.

She missed Athena, and the idea that there was a friend at her side, supporting her and not criticizing her. She missed her father, who rode dutifully into God knows what. But most of all, she missed her mother, a pillar of strength who always understood. If there was anyone whose love Laranna had taken for granted, it was Mom’s. The idea that her mother had known what was coming, that maybe she could even have avoided it, gnawed impossibly at her. It was stupid - who would die if they could chose to live? Laranna had seen the warmth and pride in Mom’s eyes right until they faded to horrible glassy stillness. She doubted anyway, which only added to the guilt and inadequacy that streaked down her cheeks.

Time and sorrow stretched and blurred, and perhaps she nodded off. Then somehow Laranna found herself walking into the rain, trying to out-pace the formless pain inside her. She didn’t know the road, nor did it seem familiar, but it was a well-used thoroughfare paved in broad flagstones. In the way of dreams, the shops to the side were brightly colored, but all the signs indistinct. She walked faster, to see the streets cresting in a high hill, overlooking a great city. In the distance, an army swarmed outside toward the walls below. She couldn’t make out who they were: from this height, they could be from anywhere, with swords raised gleaming against the stormy skies. Then she recognized her father’s banner raised above one of the towers. Armed men surrounded his direwolf insignia as it rippled in the wind, swords and spears readied as the city gates began to buckle.

Laranna raised a hand to her mouth, then broke into a run, trying to reach her father. She had no idea what she would do: help him, warn him, or just watch helplessly - a few blocks closer. She rounded a building in a near sprint, and stopped dead, face to face with a beautiful middle-aged woman with dark hair - waiting. Her mother.

“Hello, Laranna,” the dream-woman spoke. “I need to talk to you.”

“What the hell is this?!” Laranna screamed. “I lost you, mother, but I can’t lose him too! Why are you tormenting me?”

Adelin was unstirred. “You haven’t lost me, my dear. I’m here, and I can help you.”

“How can you help anyone when you’re dead?” Laranna asked plaintively. “I need you alive. Jaselle and I can’t run Northspire on our own. It’s not working! Even Athena and Gelan are in over their heads.”

Adelin shook her head. “You and Jaselle are making me proud. Northspire has a proud people, and leading them is messy at the best of times. It’s also in good hands. But you can’t help your father alone, and he knows it. The Travansils are both Sorcerers, dear, much more dangerous than Innoken. The Empress cannot face them and win, and neither can you. That’s not what your army is for. But you will need it, and soon.”

“How do you know?” Laranna asked, wrapping her arms around herself, suddenly feeling the chill of the rain.

Adelin handed Laranna an umbrella that had been absent only a moment before, then hesitated a moment before replying. “I’ve learned much in the Spirit Realm, more than I can share. But there are some things you should know, that I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time. Check the bottom drawer of the desk in my office, if no one has cleaned it out. You’ll find three notes, and one of them is for you. Read it, if you remember this conversation when you wake. So much is about to change.”

“Why did you leave me, Mom?” Laranna asked, mind growing fuzzy as the dream began to dissolve.

Adelin wrapped her arms around her daughter, and held her close. “I’m always with you. Even when everything falls apart, remember that. I love you, and I always will.”

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